Romanticism meets Classicism
Soloist Joshua Bell
by James Leonard
Violinist Joshua Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Is this some kind of mistake?
That the UMS is presenting American violinist Joshua Bell as the soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto in their season's closing concert on Sunday, April 22, is surely no mistake. Known for his lush tone, impeccable technique, and highly expressive interpretations, Bell is a natural for the work's long lyrical lines. And that the orchestra backing him is London's Academy of St. Martin in the Fields likewise makes sense. The Academy has been the very definition of a modern chamber orchestra since its founding by Sir Neville Marriner in 1959, and it's certainly an apt choice for the work's refined elegance.
But Bell isn't just the soloist. He's also leading the Academy in the concerto plus the rest of the all-Beethoven program: the big and brutal Coriolan Overture that opens the show and the Dionysian Seventh Symphony that closes it.
The Academy clearly thinks he can do it: it hired Bell last September to serve as its music director for three seasons, though he's spending just three weeks with them the first year, part of it headlining this American tour.
From a purely technical point of view, of course, the Academy doesn't really need a conductor in some repertoire. As a chamber orchestra, they're not just smaller than a symphonic orchestra; their players actually perform as chamber musicians, watching each other for cues and taking far more responsibility for their parts. Tellingly, while Bell will stand as the soloist in the concerto, he'll lead from the concertmaster's chair at the front of the violinists for the rest of the program, making him literally first among equals.
Even if Bell and the Academy pull it off technically, Coriolan is an extremely dramatic work with gargantuan dynamic contrasts. Who'll handle the interpretation and make sure the structure coheres? And the Seventh rocks as hard as a roadhouse band on Friday night and needs staying power along with orchestral virtuosity. Who's going to keep the band tight and in the groove, and who's going to keep them rocking when they've blasted through three movements and still have to bash their way through the final Allegro con brio? Who knows? And that's what makes sports events and live musical performances compelling: you never know what'll happen. You may love it. You may hate it. But if you don't show up, you'll never know.
[Originally published in April, 2012.]